Band of actor-musicians drums up a persuasively thrilling imitation of Hamburg-era rock 'n' roll.
Ever since rehearsals for his 1993 movie about the early days of the Beatles, helmer Iain Softley has harbored ambitions to put “Backbeat” onstage. He had a hunch that the raw power of a live band would connect with auds — even more than on the bigscreen. In this, he’s not wrong: Softley’s band of actor-musicians drums up a persuasively thrilling imitation of Hamburg-era rock ‘n’ roll. “Backbeat,” however, seeks to be more than your average jukebox tuner, and in the transition to the theater, it underplays the tragic story of original bassist Stuart Sutcliffe.
Four years before their first appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” the Beatles left their native Liverpool for a residency at the Kaiserkeller, a nightclub in the seedy quarter of Hamburg. Playing for upwards of six hours a night, they developed into the tight ensemble that would rock the world.
In contrast to the driving ambition of John Lennon and Paul McCartney, however, Sutcliffe was a mere fellow traveler; he was not an especially proficient musician, and his real aim was to become a painter. What he had on his side were cool good looks and the close friendship of Lennon.
Softley’s story pulls in two directions. On one hand, there’s the rise of the Beatles as they set off on a now-familiar trajectory from obscurity to stardom. On the other, there’s Sutcliffe (Alex Robertson), whose romance with German photographer Astrid Kirchherr (Isabella Calthorpe) strained relations with the possessive and jealous Lennon (Andrew Knott) before Sutcliffe split from the group in favor of art school.
It’s a story cut short by Sutcliffe’s death from a brain hemorrhage at age 21 — a plangent contrast to the upbeat post-skiffle pop being perfected by his erstwhile bandmates.
In the movie, Softley struck a satisfying balance between the two stories. But onstage, where the impulse to dance along to the music is strong, Sutcliffe’s tragedy puts a damper on the proceedings without being especially moving in itself. That’s partly because Softley underwrites the relationship between Sutcliffe and Lennon; we never get a clear sense of what drew the two young men together, so we’re unmoved when Calthorpe’s chic Kirchherr pulls them apart.
It doesn’t help that the script calls for Knott to portray Lennon as more thug than wit. This was true also for Ian Hart in the movie, but here, it makes it harder to recognize the charisma that set Lennon apart. Only in one brief scene toward the end do we get a taste of the surrealist humor that would characterize the Fab Four’s early public appearances. More typically, Lennon comes across as a charmless bully, with little explanation for his damaged psychology. The effect is a play that takes us doggedly through the historical events without deeply engaging us in the emotion of the story.
If the production fails to capture the charisma of the key players, however, it does do a stylish job of re-creating the atmosphere of the early 1960s, when a monochrome world was about to turn full color. In the pacy rock ‘n’ roll covers, and in Timothy Bird’s sophisticated projections on a set by Christopher Oram that alternates between gray metallic walls and nightclub interiors, “Backbeat” evokes a 50-year-old world with modern-day energy.